An Interview with Robin Robertson @ The Globe and Mail's 'In Other Words' BooksBlog
Robin Robertson's Stunning Début


A Painted Field, a collection of shorter lyrics and longer sequences, is Scottish writer/editor Robin Robertson's first book of poetry. Robertson, the publishing director of Jonathan Cape, oversees the works-in-progress of such educated and erudite imaginations and talents as Anne Carson, Thomas Dilworth, Alison Kennedy, Seamus Deane, and Sharon Olds.

Naturally, the influential position Robertson holds — alongside his ability to identify a certain classic stylishness among select authors — would generate intense curiosity vis-à-vis the poetry Robertson himself writes (among various interested parties located throughout the English-speaking world of contemporary literature).

Robertson, a technical maestro, writes exquisitely crafted and obsessively controlled poems honed, shaped, and razored to a fine exactitude. Each entry in this auspicious and unpretentious début shimmers with a concentrated intensity not often apparent in lesser works by Robertson's postmodernist counterparts, a point worth noting in this context (primarily because, if nothing else, the poet forcefully levels the fashionable field of postmodernism in the anything-but-complacent subtext informing the work).

The American Edition of Robin Robertson's First Collection of Poetry

A Painted Field opens with "New Gravity," for example, a brief yet substantial lyric which presents ten highly polished and multi-layered lines articulating a complex attitude towards "this place, this whole business" as the poem's narrator speaks of telling a child about the birth of a sibling in the most moribund of settings, a graveyard filled with shadows filtered through the "half-light of ivy / and headstone."

While the poem functions beautifully as a meditation on life and death in terms of the inevitable cycles circumscribing existence on this planet, it also contains, within its formal diction and tone, an indictment of social and economic systems which contribute to the ever-accelerating destruction of art, culture, and civilisation. Consider, for example, the trio of words following "this place" and its relevance in terms of the Eliotic reference undermining the entire notion of holes and giving birth: "For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business" ("East Coker," Four Quartets). Additionally, Robertson deftly interweaves allusions to both the muse-goddess and the various representational levels of trees (most succinctly summarised in Robert Graves's The White Goddess) so that, "the tree's jigsaw" additionally yields to a sly puzzler which further illuminates "your father's grave."

The Canadian Edition of Robin Robertson's First Collection of Poetry

The crisp mathematical precision of many of Robertson's utterances provides an effective counterbalance for those issues which profoundly concern the creator of the poems. To his credit, the poet's poet does not allow either prurient self-disclosure nor soppy sentimentalism to overwhelm his work, a fact which may annoy readers accustomed to "the bare-all school of poetic fools" (where students of "love-gone-wrong" and "life-not-right" expose their innermost tawdry traumas in angst-ridden drivel dramas which, for the most part, still dominate the contemporary poetic field).

Hence, the sequence "Camera Obscura" and the longer poem, "The Flaying of Marsyas," both extremely difficult works in the finest sense of that word — cf. Eliot, James Joyce, M. Travis Lane, and David Jones — may prove troublesome to those who do not consider "a little learning" a dangerous thing, a fact worth mentioning in this context because, if nothing else, this pair of entries showcases Robertson's keen intuitive vision and almost-pugilistic scholastic intelligence.

The British Edition of Robin Robertson's First Collection of Poetry

"Camera Obscura," a fanciful docu-poetic (but no less profound) meditation "on the personal and artistic life of David Octavius Hill — an indifferent painter but pioneering photographer in Edinburgh in the mid-nineteenth century," repays attentive reading (particularly since Robertson effortlessly captures the self-referential Romantic strain in a frame-by-framed refrain, evidenced most acutely in the collocation of words surrounding the then-novel artform, from "panning," "stopped," and "moving," to "focus," and "exposure" which yields to an angle on negative capability simultaneously admitting of darkness and light, absence and presence, aethereality and substantiality, those "ghosts returned to their bodies" at the "Dead Centre, 1858" notwithstanding):

          Exactly halfway through his life, panning east
          on Princes Street, George Washington Wilson stopped
          the moving world into focus. After long exposure,
          ghosts returned to their bodies . . .


Robin Robertson:  © 2009 Niall McDiarmid

"The Flaying of Marsyas," perhaps one of the finest poems written in the English language, recounts the story of the unlucky satyr of Greek mythology who was skinned alive for incurring the wrath of Apollo.

          Red Marsyas. Marsyas échorché,
          splayed, shucked of his skin
          in a tug and rift of tissue;
          his birthday suit sloughed
          the way a sodden overcoat is eased
          off the shoulders and dumped . . .


Born in 1955, Robertson may well be described as one of the last great modernists to contribute work of value to the ongoing poetic discourse Eliot termed The Tradition. That said, in this utterly postmodern world, the richly blessed poet's plangent yet astringent utterances may strike some readers as far too taxing an intellectual undertaking, given Robertson's uncompromising position when it comes to the fugitive nature of things: the implacable coupling of desire and sadness, beauty and loss, that ineffable all-or-nothingness "costing not less than everything" (Eliot, FQ) but, paradoxically, mattering more than life itself.

Judith Fitzgerald Interviews Robin Robertson for The Globe and Mail's 'In Other Words' BooksBlog


"A Painted Field by Robin Robertson" originally appeared in The Toronto Star (25 April 1998).
© 1998-2009 Judith Fitzgerald. Robin Robertson's photograph © 2009 Niall McDiarmid.
All Rights Reserved. (Gracious Hat Tip to Peter Scowen and Dr. Thomas Dilworth.)

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